The stimulus in danger

I LIVED on dread; to those who know
The stimulus there is
In danger, other impetus
Is numb and vital-less.
As ’t were a spur upon the soul,
A fear will urge it where
To go without the spectre’s aid
Were challenging despair.

~Emily Dickinson

I’m finding this poem really intriguing in light of yesterday’s. In that poem, the speaker describes the “splinter” that can throw a person off course. The tone of that poem makes it clear that the splinter is not a good thing. In this poem, however, dread acts in much the same way as the splinter in the previous poem–it intrudes. In this case, however, the intrusion is welcome–and productive.

This could be the procrastinator’s hymn, really. It reminds me of every friend I’ve ever known who swore they couldn’t start a paper until the night before it was due, that they thrived under pressure, that they needed a deadline–and needed it to be imminent–in order to get anything done.

It’s interesting to note that Dickinson couches this observation in the past tense, speaking as if from beyond the grave: “I lived on dread.” She goes on to invoke all the others who understand the efficacy of danger as a motivator. Even more interesting, I think, is the ending–fear urges to soul to go where it could not go otherwise. Without fear, the speaker would be “challenging despair.” Fear as a means of avoiding despair is an intriguing thought. I’m not sure what exactly to make of it. It feels deeply significant that the poem ends on the word “despair,” as if all the speaker’s fear-driven attempts (at what?) have, in the end, still come to naught.